The Iraqi elections and Howard Dean

Published February 2, 2005 1:54PM (EST)

There are a lot of reasons for Democrats to celebrate what appears to be the ascension of Howard Dean. Timing isn't one of them. Just a week or so ago, many Americans who scoffed at Dean during the primaries might have been willing to give him a second look. The war he opposed was going so badly -- the prospects of anything good coming of it were looking so grim -- that Dean might have been vindicated, at least a little, in the eyes of those who dismissed him a year ago as an unpatriotic, far-left loony.

The Iraqi elections have changed that equation, at least for now. In mid-January, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that nearly 58 percent of the American public disapproved of the way George W. Bush was handling the war in Iraq. Fifty-six percent said the war wasn't worth fighting at all. We haven't seen any post-election polling yet, but with all that positive media coverage -- there was less violence and higher voter turnout than anyone "expected," even though no one knew what to expect -- we're betting that the next poll numbers will show a fairly dramatic turnaround in public opinion. At least one newspaper columnist who opposed the war now wonders if maybe George W. Bush was right all along.

Public perception can swing back in an instant -- in the time it takes for a hostage to be killed, for a car bomb to explode, for a rocket to land in a dining hall. And it can change as the less inspiring details of the election begin to sink in. Voter turnout may be lower than was projected over the weekend. There are concerns that low turnout among Sunnis, in particular, could leave many of them thinking the election was illegitimate, fueling rather than cooling the continuing insurgency. And at least some Iraqi officials admit that they tricked citizens into casting ballots by spreading false rumors that their food rations would be cut off unless they voted. There's more to this election than smiling faces and purple fingers might suggest.

But for now, the American public's perception of the war is going to be better than it has been for a very long time. That's got to be bad news for Howard Dean. If he takes control of the Democratic Party -- and at this point, it's hard to see how he won't -- he's going to need to begin his work from a position of strength. The Republicans are already lining up to marginalize him; both Tom Delay and former RNC Chairman Rich Bond are quoted making "scream" jokes in today's New York Times. Establishment Democrats, meanwhile, are making it clear that they won't be lining up behind him. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sounds a little snippy in the Times today. "The Democratic chairman has a constituency of 447 people," Reid says. "Our constituency is much larger than that."

Of course, Dean's constituency reaches beyond the 447 voting members of the DNC. He has the grassroots and the "netroots," at least some part of organized labor, a slew of state party leaders who are tired of being ignored by the DNC, and a whole lot of everyday Democrats who want their party to be something other than a watered-down version of the GOP.

But if Dean is going to reshape the Democratic Party in the ways he has discussed in the DNC race, he's going to need the kind of "political capital" that Bush likes to claim for himself. With the war going badly, Dean could strike a little fear in the hearts of Republicans and keep establishment Democrats on their heels; many of the latter, like Reid, voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq and were probably wishing that they hadn't. The man they had mocked -- the man they caricaturized and trivialized and ran out of town on a rail -- well, it looked like he was right and they were wrong after all. Dean had the high moral ground. He carried with him the power of "I told you so."

That dynamic changes in the afterglow of this weekend's vote. How long the warm, fuzzy feeling lasts may well determine how much Howard Dean can do as the Democrats' next leader.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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